Approaches to Teaching Coding in the Lower School

By Emily Cruz, Spanish/Technology and Brian Wanyoike, Lower School and Homeroom Teacher

While remote learning has its challenges, Open Grace this summer has allowed us to try out different approaches to teaching coding to Lower School students. During the summer, we have taught two introductory coding classes: one for students entering first and second grade and another for students entering third and fourth grade.

Beginner Coding for Grades 1-2 with Ms. Cruz
While remote learning may have brought new challenges, students in Coding 1 & 2 were excited for more. This summer they explored beginner coding through a collection of Hello Ruby excerpts and activities that creatively presented fundamental coding concepts. The warm-up exercises from each chapter allowed students to practice computational thinking and apply it to their coding puzzles. We used Code.org as our curriculum guide and Tynker for extra practice. The coding concepts included sequencing, loops, conditionals and events. With their newfound coding abilities, students excitedly engaged in creative projects that allowed them to program their very own game designs and stories. We’re having a fantastic time exploring the unimaginable possibilities of code. 

Beginner Coding for Grades 3-4 with Mr. Wanyoike
With students entering third and fourth grade, we connected the coding work from class with real world applications. Starting with the concept of an algorithm being “a series of directions to help complete a task,” students created algorithms to help me find my iPad. Discussions about algorithms, which varied from how to create PB&J sandwiches to how satellites orbit the Earth, allowed students an entryway into thinking about carefully creating their coding algorithms.

In each Code.org module, students learn key concepts in “Unplugged Activities” before jumping into creating code. Our discussions of those software engineering concepts helps to guide our thinking as we create algorithms for a sloth dance party or even to create individualized “Star Wars” games. Through it all, we remember that every software engineer, young and old alike, must get comfortable with debugging, which is when you find and fix errors in your code. We celebrate our mistakes knowing that by working through them, we are on our way to becoming even better programmers!

International Games for International Perspectives

Even though students were stuck at home, the First Grade spent the spring traveling across the globe, all without having to pack a bag. “The backbone of our First Grade Curriculum is the Seven Continents of the world.” said First Grade teacher, Ms. Tang. “Over the course of the school year, we journey around the world, specifically looking through the lens of children around the world — where they live, what they eat, how they go to school, how to live and play. This not only ties into our Social Studies curriculum — it is interdisciplinary.” 

Throughout the school year, First Graders get a chance to explore the seven continents of the world, using the lenses of art, science, music, social students, language arts, and even physical education to inform the curriculum. “How people play” has also been an integral part of the First Grade syllabus, manifesting in Games Around the World, which highlights games such as Parcheesi from India, Yut Nori from Korea, Fox and Geese from Norway, and Mancala from Western Africa as a way to help students identify and appreciate cultural and societal differences. The unit and its complementary event have been beloved by students and families for about 20 years.

But when the school announced that it would be closing its doors for the remainder of the school year, First Grade teachers “knew [they] needed to adapt in some way.” The solution? Have the student become the teacher. “As part of our weekend homework, we asked First Graders to teach their families how to play the games we learned this year.” Ms. Tang explained. “Though we sent instructions for one or two games a week, we asked our First Graders to “be the teacher” and show their families how to play. This gave them a level of responsibility and ownership over their homework.” 

The newly remixed curriculum also provided a platform for students to be even more creative than usual, with many students “creating their own game board and playing pieces…We had kids creating Mancala boards out of egg cartons, cups and other household containers!”

Despite the sudden changes teachers, students and families had to make, the heart of Games Around the World, and the entire First Grade curriculum, identifying and understanding our differences, remained intact. “In today’s world where we are struggling with similarities and differences and how they affect our everyday life, we want our students to identify with others who may live elsewhere, but have lives very similar to theirs.” started Ms. Tang. “We also wanted them to celebrate their differences. We want our students to become people who recognize, understand and appreciate similarities and differences. Teaching racial literacy is at the core of our curriculum, and the Games Around the World event is just a small manifestation of that. And in today’s climate, racial literacy is more important than ever.”

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An Adventure from Grace’s Youngest Authors

“Once upon a time three kids were in different places and they wanted to get together.” And so begins “The Long Haul to American Fun,” illustrated and dictated by Ms. Sarah Adler’s Early Childhood Language Group. 

The Language Group, which met twice weekly throughout the year, was designed to support the reading and writing skills of Grace’s Kindergarten students. This year, at the students’ prompting, they wrote a book to culminate the class. Ms. Adler has led the group for years, but this year presented unique challenges (and even an unexpected advantage) with the shift to distance learning in the spring. Ms. Adler noted, “Initially it was difficult to conduct the class remotely, but the children soon adapted. They even enjoyed being able to see my screen as they dictated the story while I typed it. They delighted each time I made a typo and were able to correct me. In the end, this gave them a great sense of pride and accomplishment.”

“The Long Haul to American Fun” follows three children who, after an unexpected hiccup, find themselves stranded in the Californian desert. They have to quickly find shelter, all while avoiding some very prickly cacti. They manage to travel by wing glider to American Fun, a glorious theme park in Coney Island, replete with water slides, swimming pools and games. After a short excursion to Alaska to view the Northern Lights, where they befriend a fluffy dove and a furry dog, the children return to American Fun for more water park hilarity before finally traveling safely back to their homes.